“Why do you seek the living among the dead? Remember how he told you…that the Son of man must be crucified, and on the third day rise.”
“Rise.” This is the name of a Methodist Church in Virginia pastored by a friend and former classmate of Max’s: Rise. That would be a good name for this church here at Rayne! For is this not the story of our lives? Most of you have been around here long enough to know that when Katrina dealt her death blow to this city and to this church, it caused more than $5 million worth of damage to this sanctuary–crashing the steeple, snapping massive roof beams, shattering the chandeliers, leaving a pile of rubble in her wake. There were many people who believed it was over, that Rayne, knocked to her knees, could never rise up out of the ruins and live again. There were many who believed the City of New Orleans was lost, not worth rebuilding.
I can remember during our exile, how the deserted city was closed, crawling with National Guard humvees, with armed check points at every entry point. It was not clear at all when or if we would ever be able to return. I had heard the bad news of the massive damage our church had sustained, but I had not yet seen it for myself. I don’t know what possessed me to go one day into a sign shop on Government Street in Baton Rouge to order a banner for our front door, a banner that I decided I was going to hang the first chance I had, a banner that said OPEN. I was so amazed when I got to the sign shop to see bins and bins of banners already made that said OPEN or NOW OPEN or OPEN NOW. I asked the store owner what all those banners were for. He said they were for people who were going back to New Orleans. Yes! It was like a glimpse of heaven. It was like a huge dose of hope! It was a SIGN! For I was not the only one who believed this broken city could rise and live again.
And so, on the first day they let us return, this is one of the first things I did. Right next to the red sign posted by the National Guard that said CONDEMNED, I hung that banner that said OPEN. Because this is my story, the story of our lives. No one says it better than Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Where human beings say LOST, God says FOUND; where people say, CONDEMNED, God says SAVED; where people say NO, God says YES!” We are people of the resurrection. We are people who believe that even when the worst thing has happened and life has knocked us to our knees, there is something going on in this world that makes it possible for us to RISE and live again.
Roll the clock back even further and remember how this church got started in the first place. Remember Robert Rayne and the unimaginable grief he must have felt when he got the awful news that his son William had been killed in battle. Is there any loss more difficult to bear than the loss of a child, when one must find a way to bear the unbearable. But Mr. Rayne rose up out of the depths of that shattering experience to make something good and beautiful—an enduring memorial to his son. I love the inscription on the front of this building, “To Him who hath redeemed me and kept me all my life, and in memory of my son, William, who was fatally wounded at Chancellorsville.” This was a man who believed that even when the worst thing happens and life knocks you to your knees, there is something going in this world that makes it possible for you to RISE and live again.
Roll the clock back even further, further, further, to that first Easter, to that day when the women went to the tomb expecting it to be closed, but it was OPEN, the big stone rolled away, expecting there to be a corpse, but it was EMPTY. How? What happened? Had the body been stolen? Had he not been really dead? They did not know. We must understand that they didn’t just automatically pull out the baskets and bunnies and butterflies and start celebrating a happy Easter. They didn’t get it at first. Read the New Testament witness and see how it took days, weeks, months for them to put all the puzzle pieces together, to understand the meaning of Easter.
Do we? Like the Sunday School teacher who asked her children to write a sentence about “What Easter Means to Me.” One little boy wrote, “It means egg salad sandwiches for the next 2 weeks.” Is that all it means? But what if Easter means the death of death? What if Easter means the end is never the end? What if Easter means “the worst thing is never the last thing”–only the second to last thing! For “Where human beings say LOST, God says FOUND; where people say, CONDEMNED, God says SAVED; where people say NO, God says YES!” And when life knocks us to our knees, there is something going on in our world that makes it possible for us RISE.
This is our story. We are people of the resurrection: Easter People. This is the principle on which we are called base our lives. There are so many people in this world who have chosen instead to base their lives on death—their lives filled with fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, doom, dominated by loss, overwhelmed by adversity, defeated by death. As Walker Percy once said, “The worst death of all is not the death we die, but the death we live.” He was the one who also said, “It is possible to make all A’s and still flunk life.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to flunk life! I want to graduate! I want to RISE and live again.
I am sure you have heard about Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard-trained neurobiologist, who had a near-death experience and life-altering vision of life beyond the grave, who rose up off his deathbed and wrote a runaway bestseller entitled Proof of Heaven. I read an article about his book with great interest. But I probably won’t read the book. I don’t need proof of heaven. I already have all the proof I need. YOU are all the proof I need! I see this principle at work in you, in this church, in this city, every day making it possible for people to RISE.
To base your life on the principle of resurrection is the ultimate game-changer. It makes all the difference in the world. It doesn’t mean you won’t have disappointment. It doesn’t mean you won’t experience defeat. It doesn’t mean you won’t go through times of loss, grief, depression. What it does mean is that you do not have to go through any of these experiences without hope, without trusting that somehow, someway, “all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Do you believe that? I do! I’m counting on it!
This is how I want to live my life. Based on the resurrection. To him who hath redeemed me and kept me all my life. This is how I want to die my death. Based on the resurrection. I believe what that greatest of all hymns says, “Made like him, like him we… RISE!”